Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Brickyard 400 Race Recap

The Key Moment: With three laps to go, Paul Menard had saved enough fuel he could relight the afterburners and hold off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon for the final few laps.

In a Nutshell: A popular first time win by a young man whose family is inextricably linked with the Speedway helps mask the fact this was yet another race decided by fuel strategy, not racing.

Dramatic Moment: With all their collective racing experience I’m not sure how Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and David Ragan decided going four-wide into the corner with rookie Landon Cassill was going to be a good idea. It wasn’t. Drivers like Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards paid the price.

Yes, it was intriguing over those last 12 laps to see if Gordon could run the leaders down but it was more likely those leaders were going to run out of gas anyway. If my notes are correct, every Cup race since the World 600 has been determined by fuel mileage.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

I’m sorry. I just don’t get it. Kyle Busch scrapes the wall, keeps the car straight and continues on. NASCAR immediately throws the fourth caution. Not too long afterwards, Cassill is sideways across the track with half the field bearing down on him and for several agonizing seconds no yellow flag flies, greatly compounding the severity of the wreck.

Speaking of cautions, if an empty drink bottle on the track surface is enough to warrant a caution, why aren’t drivers penalized for tossing them out the window? It’s often shown on TV as it was today when Kyle Busch’s errant toss bought out the yellow.

They must have had hard liquor for breakfast in the control tower this morning. Who came up with the brilliant idea to open pit road with a track safety truck and crew parked right there, resetting the commitment cone at the pit entrance?

Remember back when the Brickyard 400 used to draw a standing room only 300,000 fans? (Overly optimistic reports estimate Sunday’s (July 31) “crowd” at 130,000 but my guess it was well less than 100,000). Those days are gone. Of the course the economy isn’t helping but I truly believe that travesty of a 2008 race here was the final straw.

See also
Monday Morning Teardown: Finish Doesn't Save Brickyard's Bacon

If you’ll recall, NASCAR had to throw competition cautions about every 15 laps because that’s as long as the Goodyears would last and they needed to see to it someone actually finished the race. The ‘08 Brickyard is considered by many the worst stock car race ever run (the NHIS restrictor-plate race in 2000 was a close second). After the race, fans felt ripped off and angry. A lot of them asked for a refund; they never got one and guess what? Those folks never came back. Is there a lesson here for the folks that run Kentucky?

The Nationwide Series drivers were almost universal in expressing their disappointment next year’s event will be held at the Brickyard rather than the short track. Most went on to add they hoped eventually they’d be back to the old IRP. Based on what I saw this weekend, maybe it’s time to move the Cup cars to the short track, too.

It was a treat to hear Ned Jarrett in the broadcast booth again, albeit briefly. Even while he was there as an honoree, he seemed to be keeping a better eye on the action than the three individuals paid to do so. Back in that magical ESPN era of the 1980s and ’90s, Jarrett would pay such close attention to the track he’d often be able to predict a wreck laps before it happened and direct the camera crews to keep an eye on the situation as it developed.

Are they running a demolition derby or a road race at Watkins Glen this month? Based on the promotional commercial being aired to try to sell tickets, someone unfamiliar with the sport might think none of these drivers ever make a corner.

$10 for parking? In this day and age? You’ve got to be kidding me.

I’ve already gotten three emails on the topic, so here’s the 411 on ESPN’s so called “Side by Side” coverage that allows fans to continue watching the race during commercials. The improved coverage doesn’t start until the Chase (the final 10 races) and it will only be featured in the second half of those races.

I can’t imagine kneeling on diamond ground asphalt is too comfortable even for a quick smooch of the bricks. Having to stay down there to do all the hat changes as well? Sorry, not at my age.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Kahne had a clearly dominant car early in the event but a botched pit stop and the eventual spin that tore up the nose of his car ended his chances at a decent finish.

Barely two laps into the race, Kurt Busch put his car hard up against the outside wall.

For such a big track, Indy’s pit road is awfully narrow. Among those suffering pit-road collisions Sunday: Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Johnson and Brian Vickers.

With passing at such a premium at Indy, Denny Hamlin’s blown engine in the final practice caused him to enter the race with one hand tied behind his back.

David Reutimann took the hardest hit of the event after a blown tire sent him hard into the wall; he wound up 36th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Menard must not have been too close on gas after all. He had plenty left over after the race to do burnouts and victory laps.

See also
Paul Menard Wins 2011 Brickyard 400

Stewart survived his pit-road entrance incident with Harvick well enough to finish sixth in a car that was clearly not the pick of the litter.

Mark Martin was nearly spun by Montoya earlier in the race but kept it one piece to finish eighth.

It was a pretty fair weekend for young James Buescher, who finished third in the ARCA race, second in a truck and third in the Nationwide Series race.

Worth Noting

  • Not only was Menard’s win the first of his Cup career, it was only his sixth top-five result in 167 Cup starts. Four of those top-five finishes have been scored in 2011.
  • Menard is the fourth driver to score his first Cup win this season, tying a record that goes back to 1997. (The others were Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and Ragan.) He’s also the first driver to score his first ever Cup Series victory in the Brickyard 400.
  • Smith’s third-place performance was easily his best since he won at Darlington in May.
  • Jamie McMurray’s fourth-place result was his best of the season, bettering the seventh-place effort he enjoyed at Martinsville.
  • Martin (eighth) scored his best finish since Dover.
  • Harvick (11th) missed the top 10 for the third straight race. Teammate Clint Bowyer (13th) saw his streak outside the top 10 extended to four events.
  • Chevy drivers claimed six of the top-10 finishing spots (including the first four) while two Ford drivers and a single Dodge and Toyota rounded out the top 10.
  • Chevys have won the last nine Brickyard 400s and 13 of the 18 Brickyards run to date.

What’s the Points?

Edwards and Johnson remain one-two in the standings. They are now separated by 11 points. Behind them, Kurt Busch had a tough day, that bout with the outside wall costing him three spots. Harvick, Kyle Busch and Kenseth jumped ahead, moving to third, fourth and fifth in points respectively.

Behind Kurt Busch in sixth sits Gordon, with Ryan Newman holding serve in eighth, Stewart advanced two spots to ninth in the standings, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. fell to 10th. And, while Junior gained ground on the 11th-place driver in the standings his points position grows increasingly more precarious. He is now in the 10th and final spot that locks into the Chase, 19 ahead of Hamlin but still has zero wins. Uh-oh; I’m just waiting for Brian France to announce that the 13th driver in the Chase will be voted in by the fans this fall.

If the regular season were to end right now (and incidentally it won’t) Menard would grab one wildcard spot based on Sunday’s win and his 14th-place standing in the points. Ragan, with his win at Daytona has a shot from 16th if he can bypass Menard in points.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Two cans of warm, generic stuff that smells kind of skunky. This race used to be all sizzle and no steak. Now, it doesn’t even sizzle much.

Next Up: We’re just getting cranked up on the 17-consecutive-week stretch to crowning a champion at Homestead. This week’s round is at Pocono… again.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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